Stanford was just 4-8 last year, but is a team that, like the Irish, is building for the future, albeit with very different expectations. If Notre Dame is going to beat the Cardinal, as most expect they will, the Irish may need to turn in a much better effort than they did last year.
Notre Dame turned the ball over four times in the first 19 minutes of the 2007 game and were helped out by four Stanford missed field goals. The Irish did turn in two of their most exciting plays of the year – an interception by David Bruton at the end of the half returned 97 yards for a touchdown after multiple laterals and an amazing touchdown grab by David Grimes – but both were called back.
While Jim Harbaugh is trying reshape the Stanford program in much of the same way that Charlie Weis is reconfiguring Notre Dame, the Cardinal appear to be further away from getting back to respectability than the Irish.
Stanford's highs in 2007 were very high, upset wins over USC and California, but they were far too few. Stanford finished the season ranked 107th in total offense (322.5 yards) coupled with a 98th total defense ranking (435.5 yards) and while the Cardinal bring back some important contributors, there is still plenty of uncertainty.
On offense where Stanford averaged 19.6 points per game in 2007, those questions start at the quarterback position. Last year, time was split between the graduated T.C. Ostrander and then sophomore Tavita Pritchard. Pritchard will never be forgotten among Stanford fans after he started in the place of the injured Ostrander and engineered the biggest upset in school history in the win over Southern Cal.
But the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Pritchard struggled in the next six games before being replaced by Ostrander in the loss to Notre Dame. He finished the season 97 of 194 for 1,114 yards, five touchdowns and nine interceptions.
This spring Harbaugh refused to name Pritchard as the guy for 2008, instead allowing him to go through a competition with sophomore Alex Loukas (6-4, 215) and junior Jason Forcier (6-2, 213), who sat out last year after transferring from Michigan. All three need to improve their passing, but all give Harbaugh a dual-threat option at the position.
Before taking over last year, Pritchard contemplated a move to receiver, while Forcier rushed for 1,000 yards as a senior in high school and Loukas caught three passes in the team's spring scrimmage after being pressed into duty because of unbalanced teams.
Harbaugh did not feel that any of the three did enough to earn the job during the spring and has said that he does not expect to name a starter until at least a week into fall camp. There seems to be no clear front runner among the three and since Harbaugh plans to wait until after the summer to name a starter, that means incoming freshman Andrew Luck (6-3, 215) could get into the race. While Luck winning the job out of camp would be a shock, the five-star recruit was Scout's fourth-ranked passer in the Class of 2008 and is clearly the future at Stanford.
Stanford does return a three-year starter at running back in senior Anthony Kimble (6-1, 210). Kimble came to Palo Alto as one of the nation's top-ranked receivers out of high school, but after a redshirt freshman season, he was moved to running back and started the first six games of the 2005 season before suffering an injury. Kimble finished the season with 244 yards and two touchdowns on 66 carries.
In 2006, Kimble carried the ball 114 times and had two touchdowns and a team-high 470 yards in 11 starts. Last year Kimble ran for a career-high 509 yards and eight touchdowns in just seven games. Kimble, who missed five games with a shoulder injury in 2007, had 80 yards and two scores on 20 carries against the Irish.
Junior Toby Gerhart (6-1, 228) played in just one game last year because of a knee injury, but had 140 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries against San Jose State. Gerhart did not do much football activity this spring, but it wasn't the knee that kept him out. Gerhart also plays outfield for the Cardinal baseball team but struggled a bit in 2008 after a solid freshman season.
Junior Tyrone McGraw (5-9, 180) and sophomore Jeremy Stewart (6-0, 210) saw extensive time in Kimble and Gerhart's absences and gained 311 and 359 yards respectively. Both will be ready to step in this year if there are more injuries.
Whoever is getting the handoffs will be looking to get behind sophomore fullback Owen Marecic (6-1, 235), who earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 as a true freshman.
But it won't matter who is throwing or running if the guys up front don't show some significant improvement. Last year's offensive line yielded 48 sacks in 12 games, an awful number, but still 10 fewer than Notre Dame. The line wasn't much better at run blocking, where the Cardinal averaged just 111.2 yards a game, 102nd in the nation, but still more than 35 yards better than the Irish.
Stanford lost center Tim Mattran to graduation and could be without its left tackle Allen Smith (6-4, 292). Smith looked to be on his way to becoming one of the Pac-10's top lineman before an injured knee caused him to miss the last nine games of 2007. Smith had successful surgery, but missed all of the spring after he fractured his kneecap working out in February. For now, senior Ben Muth (6-6, 297), who started in Smith's place last year, will replace him.
The top healthy returning lineman is senior Alex Fletcher (6-3, 298), who will move over from right guard to replace Mattran at center. Fletcher was a Second Team All-Pac-10 selection last year. Senior Gustav Rydstedt (6-3, 289) and junior Andrew Phillips (6-5, 298) are the leading candidates to fill the guard positions with senior Chris Marinelli (6-7, 302) expected to play at right tackle. Phillips was one of the Cardinal's top prospects in the Class of 2006 while Marinelli was an All-Pac-10 honorable mention pick last year.
While Stanford does have some experience along the line, they have very little depth behind their starting five. Senior Matt Kopa (6-6, 285) is the only reserve with any meaningful experience, but junior Chase Beeler (6-3, 276) is a transfer from Oklahoma who was highly sought after coming out of high school.
If the line is able to open up some holes, expect the running backs to get their yards, but even if they can keep the quarterback on his feet, he will still have to find someone open who can catch the ball.
Stanford has to replace receivers Mark Bradford and Evan Moore, who combined for 90 catches and 1,123 yards last year. The number one spot will now go to junior Richard Sherman (6-3, 191), who had 39 receptions and team-highs in receiving yards (651) and touchdown receptions (4).
Sophomore Doug Baldwin (5-11, 182) showed flashes in his debut season with 11 receptions for 93 yards and is expected to be the next receiver after Bradford. Sophomores Ryan Whalen (6-2, 203) and converted tight end Coby Fleener (6-6, 228) have little experience but figure to see plenty of action this year.
Senior tight end Ben Ladner (6-3, 258) filled in when starter Jim Dray (6-5, 255) went down with a knee injury early last year. Ladner finished with 27 catches for 198 yards and will be relied upon until the junior Dray comes back, which could be sometime in September.
In his first season as the head guy on Stanford's sidelines, Harbaugh improved the Cardinal in just about every offensive category, but with uncertainty at key positions Stanford may take a step back this season. What will be interesting to see is how Harbaugh handles the situation at quarterback and if the season goes south whether he would burn Luck's redshirt year to get him some early experience.
Last year's defensive coordinator Scott Shafer left Palo Alto to join Rich Rodriguez's staff in Ann Arbor, but look for new co-defensive coordinators Ron Lynn and Andy Buh to continue the aggressive approach.
The one thing Stanford did with consistency last year was attack the opposition's offense. Stanford was 11th in the country with over three sacks per game and fifth in the nation with an average of 8.33 tackles for a loss. The good news for Harbaugh is that he has most of the players that were responsible for those numbers back, the bad news is that the group was also responsible for allowing over 400 yards and 28 points per game.
Senior defensive end Pannel Egboh (6-6, 270) probably has the most talent of any Stanford defender and will command the most attention along the line. A three-year starter, Egboh has 21.5 career tackles for a loss and 8.5 career sacks.
While Egboh will get after the passer, senior defensive tackle Ekom Udofia (6-2, 310) is the Cardinal's top run stuffer. Egboh has 61 career stops and could develop into one of the top interior defenders in the Pac-10.
Senior Erik Lorig (6-4, 257) and junior Levirt Griffin (6-4, 269) will compete to start opposite Egboh at the other defensive end spot. Lorig picked the Cardinal over the Irish after Signing Day in 2005 and has 43 career tackles. Griffin worked his way into the rotation last year after a solid freshman season and had 19 tackles in 2007.
Junior Brian Bulcke (6-4, 269) seems to have finally found a spot at defensive tackle after spending time at linebacker, defensive end and fullback, but he played in just three games last season. Bulcke missed all of spring recovering from shoulder surgery and will be pushed by redshirt freshman Matt Masifilo (6-3, 285), who was a highly-rated high school player in the state of Hawaii in 2006.
Linebacker is probably the deepest position on the roster as Stanford returns four players with starting experience led by senior Clinton Snyder (6-4, 231). The Nagurski candidate is Stanford's career leader in tackles (179), sacks (10), forced fumbles (7) and 18 career tackles for a loss.
Snyder is expected to play the Sam spot with senior Pat Maynor (6-2, 220) playing Will. Maynor is tied for second behind Snyder in active career tackles (135) and has 19.5 career tackles for a loss. Junior Nick Macaluso (6-3, 236) looks to be the leader to win the position in the middle. Macaluso started six games last year and recorded 23 tackles.
Sophomore Chike Amajoyi had a solid season in his first year with 47 tackles, nine for a loss and four sacks. Amajoyi started six games and is expected to challenge for a starting job in 2008. Senior Will Powers (6-4, 242) will bring some depth to the position.
Stanford also brings back four defensive backs with starting experience including senior free safety Bo McNally (6-0, 208) and junior strong safety Austin Yancy (6-4, 215). McNally is tied with Maynor with 135 career tackles and is the team's active leader in interceptions with four. Yancy is a converted receiver who had 47 tackles last year and one pick, which he returned 31 yards for a score against USC.
At cornerback, Kris Evans (6-0, 182) replaced Wopamo Osaisai (5-11, 199) in the starting lineup late in the season last year. Heading into 2008, both are now seniors with starting experience. Osaisai was a First Team All-Pac-10 special teams pick in 2006, but gave up too many big plays in the passing game last year. Evans had 40 tackles and seven pass deflections in his first year of extensive duty.
Sophomore Corey Gatewood (5-11, 186) is back on the defensive side of the ball after playing running back as a freshman and will be a reserve corner while sophomore Taylor Skaufel (6-0, 192) who had 35 tackles as a freshman will be a backup at safety.
Linebacker is without a doubt the strength of Stanford's defense, but even if the defensive line is able to keep those linebackers free, the secondary will have to limit the big plays in the passing game.
Stanford will have to replace punter Jay Ottovegio, who was a four-year starter and graduated as the school's all-time leader in punting yards. Gone too is last year's kicker Derek Belch. The Cardinal did sign Scout's top-ranked kicker in the Class of 2007 in David Green. After sitting out his freshman season, Green may be called upon to replace both Ottovegio and Belch in 2008.
The Cardinal will have Baldwin back to handle kick return duties and leading punt returner Chris Hobbs (5-9, 165), who is a senior cornerback.
The Irish figure to be substantial favorites when Stanford comes to town on Oct. 4, and rightly so, but the Cardinal has proved that it can beat anybody and once a team believes that, it can become truly dangerous.